Reducing Class Size: Not So Cut and Dry

Class sizes are booming across the country, but not everybody agrees that obese classrooms are a bad thing.

According to Education Week (www.edweek.org), the average number of students per classroom is inching its way up as school districts struggle to deal with their budget woes.

From the 1980s until 2008, the ratio of students per teacher fell from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher. Those numbers are misleading, however. They include special education and other classes that typically have fewer students. That skews the numbers down. A better estimate given by the U.S. Department of Education is that current class sizes average about 25 students per teacher. That number will probably be rising in the near future.

The conventional wisdom is that large class sizes are a bad thing and small class sizes are good. That wisdom is supported by some studies. However, the way schools implement class size reductions plays a large role in whether education is improved. For instance, a school may cut class sizes down by one or two students. But one of the main studies supporting the idea of lowering class sizes used classrooms of 13 to 17 students. Cutting one or two children from a 25-student class would hardly be enough. Plus there are schools in high performing nations that sometimes have class sizes greater than in American schools. Smaller class sizes are good, but they are not everything. And schools have to weigh the cost of shrinking classes to the benefits gained. As it turns out, cutting classroom size is one of the most expensive ways of improving a classroom.

Some schools are experimenting with classrooms that far exceed the national average. The New American Academy in New York City has classes of 60 students with four teachers. The school manages to save money and still get the job done. Still other schools use novel approaches like having teachers also run school administration, thus freeing up manpower to teach classes and reduce class size.

What it comes down to is this: Smaller class sizes are probably better, but they aren’t the only answer. And with the economy the way it is, reducing class sizes may not be the most feasible way of improving education. That doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t look for ways to reduce class sizes; they should. But class size shouldn’t be the main arbiter of perceived school quality. Improving school education is more complicated than just saying, “Reduce, reduce, reduce.”

Check out the Education Week article to get a more detailed look at the issue.

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